Italian senate approves its own reform

Italy moves closer to constitutional change.

The government of prime minister Matteo Renzi has moved a step closer to overhauling Italy's two-chamber parliamentary system following approval by the senate of a highly controversial bill at its third reading.

Senators voted 179 in favour of the measure, 16 against, and 7 abstentions. The majority needed was 161, so the vote was safely over the majority. Some 120 senators left the hall in order not to vote at all — almost all the opposition.

The measure will change the size of the upper house, its functions and the way it is elected, creating a smaller second chamber, with limited legislative powers, representing local and regional institutions.

The reform bill transforms the senate from its present 315 members elected directly on a regional basis (plus a variable number of life senators) into a body of 95 representatives chosen by regional councils from among their own members and local mayors, plus five senators appointed by the president of the republic.

The constitutional reform must now return to the chamber of deputies for its fourth and final passage (constitutional laws must be approved twice by both houses) – probably early in 2016 – before it can pass into law.

However, Renzi has already said Italians will have their say in a referendum later in 2016 before the changes become effective, in theory from the start of the next parliament.

Under the present parliamentary system enshrined in Italy’s post-war constitution, the chamber of deputies and senate have equal powers and functions, and bills have to be approved by both houses in identical form in order to pass. This, combined with a traditional narrow government majority in the upper house, can make law-making slow and difficult.

One of the most controversial parts of the reform is the way in which the new senators will be elected. During its passage in the upper house Renzi came under pressure from the left of his own centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) about the legitimacy of an indirectly elected senate, particularly in light of a recent electoral law which gives a majority premium in the chamber of deputies to the single party getting most votes.

A compromise was finally agreed to allow regional representatives to be selected “in conformity” with the choices made by voters on electoral lists in regional elections.

However, the exact details of the election process still have to be thrashed out in a separate framework law to be approved by parliament within six months of the constitutional reform passing into law. Regional councils will then have a further three months to adapt their own local electoral laws.

Under the reform the new senate will be mandated to legislate only in matters concerning the constitution, electoral law, government and local institutions and the European Union. The chamber of deputies will retain its present full law-making powers.

The senate will be able to suggest alterations to bills approved by the chamber of deputies, but its opinion will not be binding.

Otherwise, the new senate will have functions of coordination between the state, local institutions and the EU, evaluation of public policy and monitoring of the public administration. Its vote of confidence will no longer be required by the government in order to hold office.

The reform bill also introduces a fast-track system in the chamber of deputies for priority government bills, further strengthening the executive branch with respect to parliament.

In addition, it abolishes the areas of shared competence between the state and regions, giving more powers to central government but also devolving some additional areas to the regions, provided their budgets are in order.

Under the reform, the president of the republic will still be elected by a joint parliament, but with a different quorum.